Kelly’s eyes snapped open. She could feel Phil breathing next to her, knew he was awake. He was also rubbing soothing circles with his thumb, pressing lightly into the skin over her lower back. That wasn’t what had caught her attention, though; that wasn’t what had torn her out of sleep, her heart already racing.
She lifted her head, moving slowly, and looked past Phil’s shoulder to the bedroom doorway. There was a man standing there, looming, strong and imposing. Her first instinct was to scream, but she swallowed that back. Phil’s arm tightened just a fraction around her waist, and she knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t be this relaxed if it wasn’t someone he trusted. He hadn’t even opened his eyes, or shifted to look over his shoulder.
Kelly looked back to the man in the doorway, reassessing. On second glance, he didn’t look so scary after all. He could be, she knew. He had the physique to be truly intimidating, and something told her that a scowl from him would have many shaking in their shoes. But the expression on his face at the moment wasn’t fierce. It was more . . . lost. He looked like a man who had just come in from the cold, only to find his favorite sweater full of holes.
No. No. That wasn’t right. Not full of holes. Being worn by someone else.
Before she could even begin to puzzle that thought out to its inevitable conclusion, Phil’s voice broke the silence. “Barton. Report.”
Kelly let her head drift back down to the pillow as the man’s stance straightened to attention, understanding at last that this was one of Phil’s field agents. Why the agent had felt the need to break into Phil’s home (and the man had an absolutely ridiculous level of security surrounding his apartment, so the how was also a question in her mind) was something she could parse later, along with how Phil knew exactly who it was without so much as opening his eyes.
“Both primary and secondary targets achieved, sir,” a low voice sounded, and it was obvious he was choosing his words carefully in deference to her presence.
“Collateral damage?” Phil asked.
“All on their side. Nat sprained an ankle, but she’ll be up and running in a few days.”
“Barton,” Phil repeated, a thread of warning in his voice.
There was a second or two of hesitation, then, “Bruised ribs, sir. That’s all.”
Kelly couldn’t help but lift her head again, a bizarre mix of curiosity and worry tugging at her. She didn’t know this man, shouldn’t care. But clearly Phil did, even if it was just a natural byproduct of the job (and she was starting to wonder if supervisory agent for the FBI was even the truth, because this sounded more in line with secret spy stuff. CIA, perhaps?) and though the man—Barton—hadn’t looked like he was hurting, it was clear now that he was holding himself a bit stiffly.
Barton’s eyes caught hers, and she offered him a tentative smile. He managed one back, one corner of his lips tilting just enough to prove that he could. Phil ducked his head and hummed into her shoulder, and she put her head down again.
“Well, don’t just hover there, Barton. Either get out or make yourself useful. Eggs and bacon are in the refrigerator.”
There was a huff, and then footsteps retreating. Kelly didn’t hear the front door though, and a moment later the sounds of cooking made their way into the bedroom. “Should you really be making him cook if he’s injured?” she asked, and Phil finally opened his eyes and pulled away from her just enough to reward her with a smile.
“If he were really hurt, he’d have lied and told me he was absolutely fine. Bruised ribs are an annoyance, nothing more.” There was clear affection in his tone, and she had a sudden understanding of a long and productive working relationship. He kissed her, short and sweet, a morning greeting.
“So are you going to tell me why one of your subordinates feels the need to break into your home after completing an assignment?” she asked as Phil swung his legs off the bed and she sat up and stretched.
Phil shrugged as he pulled a t-shirt on. “He’s Barton,” he said, as if that explained everything. Maybe it did, to him.
She wiggled into a pair of pyjama bottoms and pulled the drawstring tight; she’d only stayed the night at Phil’s once before and didn’t yet dare to suggest bringing her own things over. (She was simply happy to have rated an invitation; it was clear that he valued his privacy, and she was beginning to have a better understanding of why.) “He’s a friend, then. Not just another agent.”
Phil hummed in that way he had, and she knew she’d hit it dead on. She tugged at the borrowed shirt she’d slept in, making sure it wasn’t caught in the waistband of the pants, and kissed him in understanding. “Come introduce me then.”
Padding after him to the front of the apartment, she noted the jacket casually draped over the back of the armchair, the bolts and chain still done on the door. How had Agent Barton gotten in? The man himself was at work at Phil’s stove, and Kelly allowed herself a moment of appreciation for the broad back, the well-muscled arms. He shifted then, looking over his shoulder at the two of them, flashing a smile at her in particular. She smiled back, recognizing the honor of meeting him, the importance of his acceptance.
“Clint Barton,” Phil said, and Kelly ignored the quizzical eyebrow Barton sent to Phil over that, “Kelly Cooper.”
“Nice to meet you,” she offered, and Barton—Clint—smiled again, before turning back to the eggs.
“You too. Coffee’s ready. Coulson, put some toast in.”
Phil was already on his way to the toaster, and there was an odd sense of routine about it. Kelly chose not to dwell on it, but rather moved to get three mugs, having to open two different cupboards to find the right one. Phil smiled at her as he put cream and sugar on the counter by her hands, and she poured out the portions, asking Clint how he preferred his prepared.
“Cream and sugar, thanks,” came the reply, which Phil promptly scoffed at.
“Three heaping spoonfuls of sugar, and so much cream the coffee’s nearly white,” he corrected.
“Boss, you know I’m not fussy.”
“In the field, maybe. But you’re home now, so.”
Kelly didn’t fail to notice how Clint’s smile reached his eyes this time, how it transformed his whole face, even if he was looking down at the pan. She set about fixing his drink, then left it next to the stove. He and Phil both moved then, Clint dishing out portions of eggs and bacon, and Phil putting more bread in the toaster, and suddenly the kitchen seemed a little crowded. So Kelly took her mug to the table and sat, watching them work and move around each other effortlessly, getting out silverware and napkins, jam and butter.
“Things go all right with Henley?”
“It was fine. He’s a little green still, but that’s why you sent us. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. Just gonna have to get used to being the one giving orders.”
“He didn’t look to you two to run the show, did he?”
“Nah. Was just a little in awe of Widow, is all. But, come on, who isn’t?”
Phil gave a twitch of his lips in response, and Kelly wasn’t even trying to pretend she totally understood what they were talking about. Which, well, was probably for the best. She had a feeling she didn’t really want to know. Clint turned then, and slid a plate in front of her, complete with toast. She thanked him, and smiled as Phil joined them, his foot tapping hers under the table just once.
The topic of conversation changed then, Clint and Phil directing the conversation so seamlessly that Kelly didn’t even realize they were doing it until their plates were clean and the second pot of coffee had been emptied. Clint now knew everything about Kelly, and even Phil had learned a few new things, but Kelly knew next to nothing about Clint, and of course there were still huge gaps in her knowledge of Phil. She was about to try to rectify that, to maybe try to get the conversation where she wanted it to go, when Clint stood hastily, carefully not looking at her.
“Time to go,” he said. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your day off, boss.”
Phil seemed, for once, stuck for something to say. Kelly couldn’t totally read his carefully blank expression, but she was pretty sure Phil wasn’t at all upset about the interruption. Honestly, neither was she. Despite not knowing anything about him, she rather liked Clint, and she had been wanting to meet more of Phil’s friends. Clint clearly qualified, despite being a subordinate.
So she spoke up where Phil couldn’t. “It wasn’t an interruption, Clint. I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”
“You too,” he replied, but it seemed automatic. His eyes flicked to Phil, then back to her, and he gave a little nod, as though convincing himself of something. Then he turned and strode away, grabbing his jacket and slipping it on as he made his way not to the door, but the far wall.
“For heaven’s sake, Barton,” Phil said, his voice one of fond annoyance. “Use the door.”
“Just as easy this way, sir,” Clint replied, already pushing the window open. He gracefully slid out onto the fire escape and, much to Kelly’s surprise, began to climb up rather than down.
Once his boots were out of sight, Kelly turned to look at Phil, who merely shrugged at her and went to close the window. “FBI, huh?” she asked him dryly.
“FBI,” he confirmed, but his back was still to her, and she didn’t believe him at all.
Kelly juggled her keys, her coffee, her purse, and her groceries. The milk, especially, was getting heavy, but she shifted all the bags to one hand so she could get her door open. Once she managed to get the key turned she relaxed, which was a huge mistake, because the bag containing the yogurt containers tipped, and they all rolled onto the floor and away from her feet. She swore softly and put everything down, dropping to her knees. Then she gasped as her door opened from inside her apartment. She looked up, tense and ready for a fight, relaxing only minutely when she realized she knew the man standing there.
Well. That phrasing might be a little strong. She had a feeling very few people actually knew Clint Barton. But she did recognize him, and that, she assumed, was more than a lot of people got.
“Let me help,” he said and promptly joined her on the floor. Her shoulders lost some of their tension as he scrambled around for the wayward containers. “This is a fuckton of yogurt,” he commented dryly as he deposited his second handful into the bag.
Kelly shrugged. “It’s cheap and I like it. Makes for a quick breakfast too, when I’m running late.” She paused to rearrange the bag as it became fuller, so that the accident wouldn’t happen again. “How . . . No, never mind that. Why?”
He stood then and held out a hand, helping her up. She could see scratches on his arms, a bandage peeking out from underneath the collar of his t-shirt. There was some kind of substance on his boots, and she glanced away, not wanting to get a closer look. “Inside,” he said gently, and her heart stuttered in her chest.
She followed him in, closing and locking the door behind her, and watched as he unerringly made straight for her kitchen and set the bags on the counter. “Is Phil okay?” she asked from her place by the door, unable to move until she had an answer.
The muscles in his back stiffened, and it took him a second to turn around. But eventually he faced her, nodding, and the breath she hadn’t known she was holding left her lungs in a rush. She found herself able to take the steps to join him in the small kitchen, and hadn’t known she was going to take his hands until they were already firmly in hers.
He startled, but he allowed the contact, though he didn’t squeeze back. “Coulson,” he said, his voice rough, “seemed to be concerned about standing you up tomorrow night. He, uh. He didn’t have the chance to give me your number, so, you know. Here I am. To tell you.”
How he’d known her address wasn’t a question she was going to ask, nor how he’d gotten in. “Is he okay?” she asked again, because it was possible Phil had been called away on an assignment (though he’d always taken the time to call her in the past) but this felt like more. Clint was tense and unsure, and that more than anything set her pulse racing.
“He’s going to be fine,” Clint said, and he actually sounded like he believed it. He did curl his hands around hers then, pressing gently for just a moment before pulling away. He turned and retrieved the milk and bag of yogurt containers from the counter, taking it all to the refrigerator and opening the door. “He’s got the best people looking after him, and I’m sure in a few days he’ll be calling you himself to apologize.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t like the feeling in her chest, or the way her stomach was knotted up. She hated not knowing everything, and felt a bit adrift by the fact that clearly Clint wasn’t going to elucidate. She did, however, know enough to know that asking wouldn’t get her anywhere, and that Phil loved his job. If she cared about the man, she would have to accept the spy stuff as well, and being worried was probably a big part of that. Might as well get used to it. She had absolutely no intention of letting Phil go.
“Can I see him?” she asked instead, and watched Clint shake his head even as he neatly stacked yogurt containers.
“It’s a secure facility. No civilians.”
“What—” She cut off her question, sudden annoyance flaring. “Clint. Dammit, Clint, would you please look at me?”
There was a small clatter as two of the containers fell to the shelf. Clint took his time straightening them, then stepped back and closed the refrigerator door, turning to her. “I can’t tell you anything,” he said miserably. “You know I can’t.”
She looked him over for a long moment. He was obviously not a happy puppy. He was visibly sore, and tired, and he’d come to deliver a message to his friend’s girlfriend, when clearly his own feelings toward said friend weren’t strictly buddy-like.
The thought was not an entirely new one, but it was the first time she’d really allowed herself to acknowledge it. It wasn’t shocking, really, because how could anyone know Phil and not fall for him at least a little? So he had a guy friend with a bit of a crush on him. It wasn’t a big deal, and it certainly wouldn’t affect Kelly’s relationship with him. Phil was clearly straight, and uninterested, and too ethical to get involved with an agent in his command. But it did make Clint’s awkwardness and uncertainty a lot more understandable.
“Clint,” she said, moderating her tone. Soft, understanding; no judgements here. She swept her eyes down his form once more, noting the tension in his muscles, the way he lifted his chin in an apparently reflexive “fuck you and what you think you know,” but wouldn’t quite meet her eyes. “Clint,” she tried again and he shifted, the light catching a wet patch on his black t-shirt. “Oh, God, you’re bleeding!”
He seemed surprised, then pulled at his shirt collar and looked down. “Uh. I may have pulled a couple stitches,” he admitted. “It’s fine. No big deal.”
It clearly was a big deal, because the blood had seeped through the bandage and the shirt, and now Kelly had some sort of super secret spy man bleeding in her kitchen. “Let me just get my first aid kit,” she commanded, then ran off to the bathroom to retrieve it.
When she returned, Clint had pulled his shirt off and was poking at the red-stained bandage over his sternum. Kelly absolutely did not allow herself to stop and admire the view, and instead hustled Clint over to the table. Clint, for his part, let himself be moved and sat where directed, holding still as she put on gloves and peeled back the gauze.
The wound was long and thin, obviously deep, and Kelly worked very hard not to make a sound at its appearance. There were several untied stitches at one end, and she very carefully cleaned the area, wincing in sympathy even though Clint was careful not to react at all. “How did you manage to rip this open, anyway?”
“Uh. Pulling myself up to the fire escape?”
Kelly’s hand slowed against the wound as she stared at him. “The fire escape isn’t accessible from the ground.”
He rolled his eyes at her. “Yes it is. If you know what you’re doing. You should probably talk to building management about that.”
She resumed her task, huffing a bit. “I don’t think very many spies—”
“FBI agents,” he corrected her.
“Yes, right, of course. Anyway, I doubt there are many agents dying to get into this building.”
“And it’s not like they couldn’t come down off the roof if they were really determined.”
That was an unsettling thought. “Why didn’t you go that way, then?”
“You’re on the third floor. Easier to walk up a couple flights than rappel down eight.”
“Or you could have used the front door,” she argued reasonably.
He scoffed. “Where’s the fun in that?”
“You are a strange man, Clint Barton,” she teased, and immediately worried that she might have overstepped.
But he just shot her a smirk and said, “It’s been said before.”
She huffed a laugh and pulled out the butterfly bandages from the kit, concentrating on placing them carefully and gently along his wound. She didn’t like having to do it, but she was competent enough and it needed doing. So she put her misgivings aside and tended to him as best she could. “You’ll get this patched up by a pro, right?” she asked as she smoothed clean gauze over the wound and taped it down. “Since you’ll be wherever Phil is anyway?”
A calloused hand encircled her wrist, and she let her fingers still against the rough fabric. She looked up when he didn’t say anything, surprised by the honest silence. “I’m sorry,” he offered, and there was too much in his eyes for her to get a clear read on. Fear, perhaps, and pain. Amazing that a man like that could feel either, when she could only imagine some of the situations he’d been in.
But thinking about that only led her to remember that Phil had probably been in those situations too, or similar ones, and that wasn’t something she liked to dwell on. And anyway, she had no idea what the man’s emotional background might have been. Perhaps this situation was, in fact, hurtful and terrifying for him.
So she smiled and flexed her hand where it rested on his skin, trying to comfort. “Clint,” she said gently. “It’s okay. You haven’t done anything wrong.” That earned her a snort and a freed wrist, so she shifted her hand, laying it on the side of his neck, careful to telegraph her movements. “You haven’t. You’ve been nothing but respectful to me, and to Phil and, as far as I know, you haven’t tried in any way to undermine our relationship.”
“Of course not.” He looked utterly shocked at the thought, as though it had never occurred to him to do so.
She nodded. “He’s your friend. You wouldn’t do that to him. All you’ve done, Clint, is have your feelings. And everyone’s entitled to their emotions, no matter what they are.”
He pulled away from her and she let him, stepping back so he could stand and grab his shirt. He pulled it on with his back to her and, with his face still obscured by the cloth, said, “I, uh, won’t come around anymore. In the mornings and shit. I mean, I haven’t been, right? So.”
“Clint,” she said again, already used to the way his first name seemed to grab his attention. “You don’t have to stop dropping in. Literally, even,” she added with a smile and a gesture at her window even though he still had his back to her. “I like when you visit. I like knowing Phil’s friends. I only met Jasper, before you, and only once.”
“You met Sitwell?” he asked, finally turning around.
She registered the use of the last name, which shouldn’t have surprised her, really, since Jasper had been introduced as a colleague at the FBI. “He had dinner with us once. Quite the foodie, isn’t he?”
Clint chuckled. “Yeah, but not in the snobby way. Man likes good diner food as much as the next person.”
She allowed the diversion, but only for a moment. “The point is, Clint, that you are welcome to visit, as far as I’m concerned. I like you. And you . . .” She took a breath, then took a chance. “You’ll tell me the truth, won’t you? As much as you can.”
He hesitated, studying her. She did her best to keep her posture straight, her eyes on his. Eventually he nodded. “As much as I can,” he promised.
She smiled at him, a weight lifted. She could do this. No matter how long Phil was gone each time, no matter what new scars he might come back with, she had Clint on her side now, and that made everything a lot easier.
(It was two new scars this time, an obvious through-and-through gut-shot, new and still tender, but healed by the time she got to see it. In that moment, having Clint on her side? Didn’t help at all.)
Kelly entered the coffee shop, looking carefully over the interior. She was fairly certain the location wasn’t actually close to Phil’s work, but she knew he wanted her to think it was. She was game to play along. She didn’t mind his secrets, really; she trusted him to know what was best, in regards to his job. So when he’d texted her with this address, telling her he and Clint would meet her for coffee, she’d happily agreed.
It was a small, independent shop, and it wasn’t very busy. A few tables were occupied: a couple on the couch in the corner, a man with a laptop by the window and, just behind him, a familiar head of brilliant red hair. Kelly smiled and made her way over, calling a warm greeting. “Miss Ravenna, hello!”
The journalist looked up, a smile settling on her mouth, eyes sparkling. “Kelly, hi! And Natalie, please. What brings you here?”
“A coffee date with some friends.”
“Your FBI friend, perhaps?” the woman asked with a knowing smirk. “We’re not too far from the city’s agency, I believe.”
Kelly couldn’t help but roll her eyes. She hadn’t realized they were near the FBI building, but she should have figured. Trust Phil to take the ridiculous cover story seriously. “Yes,” she agreed. What else could she say? She wasn’t about to expose Phil and Clint, and she hadn’t realized the FBI had been a cover when she’d done the interview for The Strad magazine. She had mentioned a new boyfriend in passing, and she and Natalie had gone off the record for a bit, just to gossip and chat. It hadn’t been a friendship forged, by any means, but she had quite liked the younger woman. “He and another agent will be here soon.”
Natalie nodded and kicked her feet up onto the chair across from her. “Please, don’t let me keep you.”
“No, really, don’t let her keep you,” Phil’s voice came, wry and amused, from behind her.
Kelly turned, smiling, to see Phil looking at Natalie, his eyes alight in the way that meant he was amused, even if he was pretending not to be. Clint, just behind him, however, did not appear amused at all. He was outright scowling at the music journalist, who, when Kelly looked over her shoulder, was smirking at him. Clearly something was at play here, and Kelly didn’t like the feeling settling in her stomach.
She looked back to Phil, who shook his head slightly. “Let me guess,” he said. “This young lady entered your life somehow a few weeks back? Perhaps a few months ago, even? And got you to tell her all sorts of personal things during an innocent conversation.”
“I . . . She interviewed me. Remember? For The Strad, not long after we met.” Kelly had the sudden urge to sit, which Phil must have seen, because he moved to the chair on which Natalie had her feet and swatted at them. The redhead brought her legs down and sat up straight, and Kelly took the chair when Phil prompted. “Is your name even Natalie?” she asked, hoping her voice didn’t sound as faint to them as it did to her.
Natalie nodded, and Clint, who had dragged another chair over and was straddling it backwards, socked her in the arm none too gently. “Be nice, Nat.”
“Natasha,” the fake journalist admitted, and then glared at the other two for some reason, as if daring them to say something.
Phil, who seemed to have no sense of self preservation, spoke anyway. “It’s all right, Natasha. You don’t have to give her your last name if you don’t want to.”
Natasha nodded, then turned to Clint and punched him in retaliation. Clint flinched and hissed, “Jesus, woman,” and pushed up his shirt sleeve to examine the bruise there. It was green and mottled, and obviously old. Natasha grinned in satisfaction, apparently knowing just where to hurt.
Kelly unexpectedly found herself approving.
That didn’t mean she knew what to say next though, and she was grateful when Phil asked after their orders. “The usual, everyone?”
He left at their nods, and Kelly once more found herself at a loss. Natasha’s grin had died, and she was scrutinizing Kelly closely. “You’ll have to do better, next time.”
“Nat,” Clint warned, but Natasha ignored him.
“You didn’t know any secrets to tell, then. But you do now. Do better.”
“I don’t know any secrets,” she protested. “Phil would never.”
“You know our names,” Natasha countered, “and you are smart enough to see through the FBI bullshit. You know Coulson’s habits and his schedule. That’s enough. Next time someone is pumping you for information, recognize it, and don’t give them anything.”
“That’s not fair,” Clint said, the two right legs of his chair up off the ground. “You’re the best there is. You can get info out of people trained not to give it. Trained specifically, in fact, to resist your techniques. You can hardly expect Kelly to have fared better.”
“I didn’t have to try very hard,” Natasha muttered, and Kelly felt herself flush.
“Well, I didn’t know, did I? That the man I’d just started seeing,” she emphasized, “had anything to hide at all. Of course I’d be much more careful now.”
Natasha looked Kelly over for a long moment, then gave a sharp nod. “You have a point.” She grinned, sharp and feral. “We can practice. I’ll teach you how to avoid giving anything away and how to plant some false information. Maybe even how to get some information out of your opponents.”
“God, no,” Phil objected, setting sugar packets, napkins, and stirrers onto the table. “Natasha, please don’t turn my girlfriend into a spy.”
“FBI agent,” Kelly corrected with a grin. She turned her smile to Natasha. “Can you also teach me how to flip a guy over my shoulder?”
“Oh, this is going to be fun.”
Phil sighed, and Clint’s laugh filled the small café.
It wasn’t always easy, of course. Phil was called away a lot, sometimes just for a few days, but sometimes for much longer. Kelly always worried, even about the assignments he assured her were mostly administrative. Even when he was in town, there were many late nights at the office, or unexpected date cancellations. Kelly frequently found herself without a date to parties and events, and she often didn’t know what to say. Worse, she couldn’t totally explain to her friends why she was so anxious when Phil was away, and ended up feeling rather isolated and alone.
She found herself relying on Clint a lot, actually. It was an odd sort of friendship they’d struck, one built on shared love for one man. Of course, sometimes Clint was gone at the same time as Phil, and Kelly managed to get through those periods by playing her cello at all hours, and mainlining coffee and ice cream, very often together.
She was just debating whether or not to make another cup for herself, when there was a knock not at her door, but at her window. Grinning, she hurried over to unlatch it, wrapping Clint in a hug as soon as he’d fully swung himself inside. “What the hell are you doing out there in this weather?”
“Fuck, Kelly, I’m all wet,” he protested, but when she didn’t let go, he hugged her quickly then gently steered her away. “Thought you’d like to know that it went well. Coulson had to stay behind for, uh, formalities, but he’s fine. The danger in the region has passed, and it’s all paperwork and diplomatic shit now. He should be back in a few days.”
She thanked him and fetched a towel, and he dutifully dried off while she got him some coffee and his own bowl of triple chocolate fudge. Clint grabbed the coffee from her first, of course, cradling the hot mug to his chest and practically cooing at it. She laughed and set the bowl on the coffee table, telling him to speak up if there wasn’t enough cream or sugar in his coffee. Not that he would, she knew. But taking care of him in the ways that he’d let her was her job, in thanks for him watching out for Phil. She reached for the remote control, ready to turn off the movie she’d had on and flip through to the recordings of Dog Cops she’d saved just for him, when he spoke.
“What are you watching?” He was peering at the screen, clearly trying to puzzle out the paused action.
“The Cutting Edge,” she replied. Upon his bewildered look, she added, “The ice skating movie?”
He shook his head. “Don’t know it.”
“Oh, wow,” she said, shaking her head at him and hitting the back button on the remote several times. “How can you be a gay man in his thirties and not know this movie?”
He grinned and poked her gently in the ribs. “Not that kind of gay,” he protested, which she had to admit was a fair point. He didn’t object when the movie started though, even sitting back with his ice cream and settling in. He made some snarky comments here and there, and really didn’t seem to like either Kate’s father or her boyfriend (“Entitled sons of bitches”) which Kelly suspected meant he was secretly rooting for Doug the whole time.
“So that was cheesy,” he said when it was over, but he followed it up with, “What else you got?” so Kelly was pretty sure he’d enjoyed it.
By the time they’d made their way through the whole carton of ice cream, several cups of coffee (some with Bailey’s mixed in) and four movies, Kelly was out for the count. She’d curled up against him, head on his shoulder, blanket draped over them both, and left him watching The Princess Bride with awe.
The next thing she became dimly aware of was Clint shifting against her and an amused voice proclaiming, “Well, this is hardly the tableau I expected to come home to,” and then, “Seriously, Barton, put your weapon away, it’s just me.”
She struggled to come to, recognizing Phil’s voice and amusement, but her eyes were heavy and her brain wasn’t completely online yet, and it wasn’t until Clint moved again that she blinked her eyes open. There was a glimpse of a wicked looking knife before it disappeared back into Clint’s boot, and she made an involuntary sound in her throat.
“Hello,” Phil said when she finally got her body to work and had tilted her head up to look at him.
“Hi.” She smiled at him, but didn’t otherwise move from her cozy spot against the world’s most perfect arm.
Phil, of course, noticed. “Are you making a play for my best friend?”
Kelly could practically feel the smile Clint was trying to hide. “If by ‘play’ you mean subdue me with all the most cliched rom-coms ever made.”
She just kept smiling. “Shut up, Barton. You loved them and you know it. I can’t believe you’d never seen them before.”
“Yeah, well. We didn’t exactly have money for movies in the circus, or VCRs and cable and shit.”
“The circus?” She tried very hard to keep any sort of surprise out of her tone, and was pretty sure she’d failed miserably.
He just chuckled a little though, and promised, “One day I’ll show you my mad circus skills. You’ll believe me then. Anyway, my brother never would have allowed such, uh, feminine movies and shit.”
She finally pushed herself off him at that, and looked at him sadly. There was obviously much more to the story than he was telling, and she couldn’t help but feel bad that he’d had such clear disapproval from a family member. She flicked a glance at Phil, who was watching them carefully, a curious tilt to his shoulders and his face at its most passive. She looked back to Clint, then, and laid a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry.”
He shrugged, clearly wanting to dismiss it. “So, yeah. Never had time to catch up on the flicks I missed.” He playfully shoved her away and she let herself fall, bracing herself off the couch with one arm while he stood.
“Natasha never wanted you to watch these with her?” Both Phil and Clint snorted at that, and she looked from one to the other, waiting.
“Romantic movies really aren’t Natasha’s style,” Phil said dryly. “She’s far too pragmatic.”
“And Russian,” Clint added as he stretched his arms over his head.
She’s Russian? Kelly wanted to ask, because, hey, talk about a well-hidden accent. But Phil nodded with an agreeing smile. “And Russian,” he concurred, answering Kelly’s question.
Right. Spy. Faking an American accent was probably the least of her skills. Kelly stood, finally greeting Phil properly with a hug and small kiss set to his neck. “You’re early,” she said happily. “Clint said it would be a couple days.”
“The clean up wasn’t as extensive as I’d feared. Hopped a military flight out.”
She just tucked her head against his shoulder, aware of Clint moving in the background, gathering up the dishes and taking them to the kitchen. “Well, that’s my cue, I think. See you for debrief, boss.”
“Thirteen hundred, Barton.”
“Sleeping in, sir?”
“There are other team members to interview this time around, Barton.” Phil’s voice was wry, but she hoped Clint wasn’t too far off the mark. It would be nice to have a somewhat lazy morning with Phil.
“And you’re saving the best for last,” Clint teased.
Phil hummed his noncommital hum, and she grinned against his skin, knowing Clint would hear it as the praise it actually was. She picked her head up and turned in Phil’s arms, giving Clint a little wave. “Thanks for the company.”
The grin he gave her was small but affectionate, as was his reply. “Any time.” He threw Phil a jaunty salute with two fingers, and went out the window, this time remembering to close it behind him.
Phil still disentangled himself from her to lock it, and then turned to her with his eyebrows up in a question. “Was he really sleeping?”
Kelly shrugged. The TV still had the DVD’s menu playing softly on repeat, and it was over four hours later than she last remembered, so chances were good. “I think so. Does he always pull a knife on you when you enter a room?”
Phil grinned. “Only when I’ve awakened him and he doesn’t know where he is. Which, for the record, has happened exactly twice. Well, three times now.”
“Because he doesn’t sleep, or because he always knows where he is?”
“A little of both. The fact that he fell asleep with you in the room . . . Kelly, that’s huge. And he mentioned both the circus and his brother. He really likes you. He trusts you. That’s not something that happens easily.”
She fought back a blush by focusing on the happy warmth spreading in her chest. “Well,” she said awkwardly. “I like him too. We’ve bonded, I guess.”
Phil nodded, and though he looked like he had questions, he apparently decided not to ask them. “That’s good then. He needs more people in his life.”
She didn’t know what to say to that, so she moved to the kitchen to rinse out the dishes she knew Clint had just dropped into the sink. Phil moved about the living room, double checking locks and latches and turning off the TV and DVD player. He’d folded up the blanket and was draping it neatly over the back of the couch when she rejoined him, and together they turned off the lights and went to bed.
Kelly surreptitiously checked her phone one more time under the table. Phil, who hated being late, was exactly that. By seventeen minutes. Worse, there were no messages of any kind, and Kelly was starting to get antsy. He had exactly eight more minutes, she decided, until she called to check on him. If he didn’t answer, she’d give him another five before calling Clint.
Two minutes later, he walked into the restaurant. Kelly let her eyes wander over him as he approached, checking for injuries, but he appeared unharmed. He was, in fact, light on his feet as he walked, his gait easy and free, and he had a genuine smile on his face.
She was going to kill him.
He leaned in to greet her with a kiss, then slid into his seat, apologizing. “There’s been a development at work.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “There’s always a development at work,” she said, and if her tone wasn’t as light as it normally was, well, she was a little annoyed.
He stilled for a moment, then lightly rested his wrists on the table. “You’re upset.”
Kelly closed her eyes for just a moment, centering herself. It was his job, and he loved his job. She just had to remember that. “I get nervous,” she admitted, “when you’re late.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again, and she could tell it was heartfelt. It always was, with him. “I don’t mean to worry you. I sent a text.”
“No you didn’t.”
Phil looked surprised by that, and he pulled out his personal cell phone, tapping through the menu. “Oh,” he said, and he genuinely seemed stricken. “Kelly, I’m so sorry. I thought it was sent. I . . . I thought it was sent.”
She nodded and took a sip of her wine. He was apologetic, and he was sincere, and he wasn’t lying dead in a ditch or motel room, or wherever it was that spies were left to bleed out. It also wasn’t like him to miss something like an errant message, especially when he knew she would worry. Whatever was happening at his place of employment, it must have been huge. “Tell me what you can,” she said, her voice much gentler now.
He smiled at her, ignoring his menu for the time being. “A project that’s been in the works for years is finally paying off. It’s been a dream of mine, one I hadn’t fully expected to realize. I don’t yet know what the end result will be, but the experts are hopeful.”
“What sort of project is it? Can you say?”
“It’s an excavation, of sorts.”
“Excavation?” she asked, surprised. “I wouldn’t have thought that to be something your . . . agency would be involved in.”
“Our agency,” he said, his mouth quirking around the word, “has its fingers in a lot of pies. Digging through ice might not be standard, but neither is it unheard of. This payoff, anyway, will be well worth it.”
“If the experts are right.”
“If that, yes,” he conceded. “I’m hopeful.”
“I can see that,” she teased. She had questions, as always, and there was one in particular that tugged at her, begging to be voiced. She pushed it aside though, not wanting to spoil a lovely evening, nor his good mood.
It wasn’t until dessert was finished and they were lingering over coffee that she dared to ask. “So, this ice project. Given that the water around the city isn’t freezing, I’m assuming you’ll have to go somewhere?”
“I will,” he said, and she could tell by his expression that he knew what her next question would be. He allowed her to ask it anyway.
Her fingers flexed compulsively around her coffee cup. “For how long?”
“A week,” he answered, honest and straightforward. “Possibly ten days.”
“Phil,” she admonished. His eyes cut down and away for only a second, but it was enough of a tell. He felt bad, but he was going to go anyway. She forced herself to let go of her ceramic ware and clenched her hand around the napkin in her lap instead. “Saturday is the concert,” she couldn’t help but say, even though she knew he didn’t need reminding, “and Sue’s party, after.”
“I know. I understand what a big disappointment this must be, but—”
“Don’t,” she interrupted. “Please don’t speak to me as if I’m a petulant child, upset because no one’s coming to her recital.” He lifted one eyebrow and she rolled her eyes. “Yes, fine, I see the similarities, but it’s not about the concert, Phil. There will be others. And yes, there will be other parties, but this is Sue’s engagement party. She is my best friend here in the city, and this is something that means a lot to me.”
He sat back, dabbing at the corner of his mouth with his napkin, using the scant seconds it afforded him to think. “You are far too independent to believe for a second that you need a man on your arm at a social function. What is this really about?”
She huffed at him before taking a deep breath. Poking at him would get her nowhere, and she was far too old to be picking fights anyway. “It isn’t about what I need. It’s about what I want, which is to spend time with you. Also, for you to spend time with my friends.”
“I’ve spent time with your friends,” he argued mildly.
“Not much. And when you do, you’re half a step away from using your Agent Coulson persona.”
He looked surprised, then thoughtful. “I suppose I have some trust issues. Also, Agent Coulson isn’t a persona, Kelly. I am an agent, and I do have to be careful of what I say and do in public. I’m sorry if that makes me more reserved than I am in our private life, but there isn’t another way for me to be. Not if I want to be certain of your safety, and the safety of my secrets.”
“They are my friends, Phil, not enemy spies,” she countered, careful to keep her voice quiet but not suspiciously low, just as Natasha had taught her. “They aren’t going to turn you over to North Korea or Somalia, or wherever it is that’s the modern-day version of Cold War Russia.”
“I’m sorry, but I have no way of knowing if that’s the truth. Do you know the lengths some of our enemies will go to, to get their hands on someone like me? I absolutely would not put it past them to somehow obtain an invitation to an innocent cocktail party, or to blackmail or bribe an attendee to compromise me somehow. I’m not saying it would be Sue,” he assured her when she felt her face contort in resentment at the implication, “or Kyle or Marie or Jackie. But it could be. It could be anyone, Kelly, and it’s time for you to accept that. Most people have a breaking point, honey, and it quite often isn’t monetary. It’s threats and intimidations, danger to loved ones. You are one of my breaking points, and if I have to be Agent Coulson at a few parties to keep you safe, you can be damn well sure I’m going to do it.”
Kelly had to sit back at that, her hand finally letting go of the napkin to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Phil didn’t break out the pet names often, and he certainly didn’t just say things like that. He wasn’t one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and for all his honesty, he was also very quiet about the emotions he had. “I’m your breaking point?” she asked quietly.
He reached across the table for her, and she gave him her hand. “You are. Of course you are. You terrify me, Kelly. Not because I don’t trust you, but because I don’t trust myself. I don’t trust that I wouldn’t cave if someone was threatening you. I can’t be sure that I wouldn’t give away every secret I have to ensure your safety. Someone would only need to find the right crack, the right leverage, and everything I know would be theirs.”
“And you’d forever regret it, if you did that,” she said, understanding coming suddenly. “You’d be glad you’d saved me, but the cost would be high, wouldn’t it? Maybe even at the expense of people like Clint and Natasha.”
“Maybe, yes. You’re right, I would have regrets. So please, let me protect you this way. Let me be private and reserved, and completely nondescript, and hope that no one ever realizes what I do. Help me to make sure that scenario never comes to pass. It’s the only way I can do this.”
She wanted to tell him not to do it. That if she were taken, or threatened, he shouldn’t give up anything for her. He should let her go, let her die, and preserve the safety of the honorable men and women he worked with. That he shouldn’t let innocent people suffer because he’d had the misfortune of loving her. And that the last thing she would want for him, ever, would be for him to compromise his beliefs and his values, just to save her. She would never want to be the source of that turmoil for him.
But she wasn’t like him. She wasn’t as strong as he was, and she didn’t say those things. Instead she squeezed his hand and gave him a nod. “Okay,” she finally said, proud that her voice came out even. “I can help you do that.”
They left the restaurant sedately, and he drove them back to his apartment. He took her to bed with a quiet intensity that left her breathless, and when she woke up the next morning he was packing. The light was back in his eyes; whatever this project was, it was important to him, and she wouldn’t ruin it again.
She slid out of bed and made him breakfast, and pretended not to notice when he touched the framed Captain America poster over the bed before he left, one fingertip pressed against the corner of the glass.
She didn’t know what it meant, but he’d said it wouldn’t be a dangerous trip, so she did her best not to worry.
There were men in her apartment. Men with guns. Kelly wasn’t sure how that had happened, and a distant part of her wondered if they’d come down off the roof as Clint had once suggested. They certainly hadn’t broken her door in, because there had been no sign of trouble until she’d actually entered her living room. And by then it had been too late.
She never even got to try any of the moves Natasha had taught her. She’d hesitated by the door, terrified. It was one thing to think she might one day be able to defend herself, but it was an entirely different experience to suddenly face the need to.
She was, to be honest, disappointed in herself.
She struggled against the ties binding her to the chair. It wasn’t even one of hers, but a cold, heavy, metal construction they’d brought with them. They were prepared, obviously, and professional, and she had no idea what they wanted, beyond the fact that they wanted Phil. They weren’t speaking to her, and not even much to each other. They’d made one phone call, to someone named Marcus, speaking in a language she didn’t understand. The only words she’d been able to parse had been “Coulson,” and, remarkably and inscrutably, “cheese.”
They’d disabled all the clocks, and she had no idea how long she’d been there, bleeding from a gash on her leg. It had been several hours, she was pretty sure, because the blood was barely coming now, sluggish and warm, and she was starting to feel rather light headed. She was left alone, thankfully, no beatings or torture, though she was almost positive that wouldn’t remain the case once Phil came for her. She was, after all, his breaking point.
She licked her lips, trying to stay awake, to take away from the sensation of the zip-ties cutting into her wrists and ankles. Clint would never have allowed himself to be taken so easily. Nor Natasha. She should have run. She should have chucked her dry cleaning and her mail at them and booked it out the front door, taking her chances against any shots they might have fired. Because now Phil would come. Phil would come and he’d have to choose, and she didn’t want him to have regrets. She wanted him to choose her, if he had to. She wanted him to put her above those pesky secrets he apparently knew, to pick her over everyone he worked with, and damn the consequences. She just wanted to live.
She gasped, startling upright as her leg twitched. No. No, she didn’t want that. She wanted Clint to be safe, and Natasha. She wanted the country to be safe, or maybe the soldiers and statesmen overseas. She wanted Phil to be the man she fell in love with, and not sell his soul to keep her alive.
More than anything, she wanted Phil to just be some FBI guy, tracking down bank robbers and maybe a serial killer or two.
With a crash, Clint’s favorite window shattered, admitting a black-clad form into the room. Kelly blinked, fuzzy-headed, and when she could focus again, all five men were dead on the floor, sticks protruding from necks and eyes and hearts. No, not sticks, she realized looking at the dangerous sight of Clint Barton crouching by her couch and holding an arrow in place against a bow. Not sticks. Arrows. Motherfucking arrows.
She giggled. It was possible she was going into shock or something. Sudden kidnapping and blood loss could do that.
She blinked again and Clint was crouched in front of her, his hands on her leg, gentle but efficient. She looked from him to the dead men, only one of whom had managed to fire his gun. “Circus trick?” she asked, looking back at him with heavy eyes.
“Circus trick,” he confirmed. “I’m gonna get a knife out now,” he cautioned, his voice slow and easy. “I need you to remember that I’m the good guy and not panic, okay? It’s just to cut the ties.”
She nodded and he went to work, snapping the tough plastic with quick jerks that pulled on her limbs. Her arms fell free and she hissed as he caught them, carefully bending them back again.
“You have to let the feeling come back slowly. This okay?”
Gritting her teeth, she gave him another nod. Inch by inch, over several minutes, he slowly brought her arms forward until she could rest them in her lap. “Are we okay now?” she asked, worried more might be coming and that they’d wasted time.
Clint shook his head. “We gotta move, Kell. These guys have backup, and it won’t be long before they try to check in. You gonna be okay on that leg?”
She stood with his help, testing her strength. It hurt and her head swam, but the leg supported her weight. “Let’s go.”
“Good girl.” He led her to the window, and used his bow to clear away the glass shards still clinging to the frame. He climbed through first then helped her, but took her away from the steps leading down. “Rope’s faster.” He crouched down and gestured at his back. “Climb on.”
She stared at him for a second or two, then did as she was told, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his chest. He straightened and climbed onto the rail of the balcony, then leapt to the rope dangling along the side of the building. He started down, and Kelly closed her eyes and tried not to cry out each time he landed, feet first, against the wall.
“Sitwell, we’re on the ground,” he said as soon as his boots touched down. “Be at the mouth of the alley in thirty.” He encouraged her to hop down as he spoke, so she did, and he took her hand and started running, pulling her along to the street.
Shots rang out and she instinctively ducked her head. Clint tugged on her arm, putting her in front of him and pushing her towards the black SUV that screeched to a stop a few yards in front of them. More gunfire, louder this time, the boom echoing off the walls of the alley. Clint was firing, and she hoped he was hitting his targets.
The noise stopped as she dove into the car, the heavy weight of Clint landing right on top of her a second later. “Go!” he shouted, and the car jumped forward as he sat up and struggled to get the door closed.
Kelly rearranged herself on the seat, grimacing as pain lanced across her thigh. “Hi, Jasper,” she said, because she was polite and in shock, and she recognized the bald head in the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Kelly,” he replied, never taking his eyes off the road as he sped around traffic. “Welcome to life in the fast lane.”
She grunted. “I’m not going to make it to the concert tonight, am I? Or the party.”
“Probably not,” Clint agreed. “Shame too, because Natasha helped me buy a suit and everything.”
She stared at him as he shifted the quiver on his back and checked the clip in his gun. “You were going to come?”
“Coulson gave me his ticket.” He slammed the clip back home and chambered a round. “He felt bad he wasn’t going to be there himself. I guess he wanted someone to see it.”
“Yeah. Were you going to escort me to the party too? Be my date?”
He shrugged. “Only if you wanted me to. I don’t think he was totally sold on that idea though. Wouldn’t have liked having to explain the switch to your friends.”
Kelly made a dismissive noise between closed lips. “Please, it’s the New York City classical music scene. Everyone there would have picked up the gay vibe immediately. No questions asked.”
Clint scoffed while Jasper choked on his own air. “I am not that obvious,” Clint protested. “Case in point,” he added, gesturing towards Jasper, who was struggling to direct the car around a corner and not die by asphyxiation.
“Dude,” Jasper finally managed. “Dude. Oh my god, so many things totally fucking make way more sense now.”
“Can it, Sitwell. Where’s the med kit?”
“Under the front passenger seat. Does Phil know?”
“Jesus fucking Christ, shut the fuck up,” Clint snapped as he bent to retrieve the supplies.
Kelly had always assumed Phil knew, given how close they were. But seeing Clint’s reaction, she was starting to wonder. “Does he?” she asked once Clint had sat back again, already rummaging through gauze and tape and butterfly bandages.
He ignored her, pulling out the things he needed to get started on her leg. It wasn’t until the wound was clean and he was applying bandages and carefully not looking at her face that he said, “He knows about the gay thing. I never said anything about the other thing, but, you know. It’s Coulson. I figure he knows.”
She put her hand over his, hoping to comfort. It wasn’t fair, she knew, and it had to suck for him. She wasn’t sure she’d have been as accepting, if he was the boyfriend and she was the friend left pining on the sidelines. “M’sorry.”
He did meet her eyes then, and offered a crooked smile. “Yeah, well, I’m gonna throw your words right back in your face, Kell. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong,’ and ‘All you’ve done is have your feelings.’ Right? It’s not your fault. It’s not anybody’s fault.”
She leaned forward to leave a kiss on his forehead. “You’re a good man, Clint.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s been said before.”
She pulled back, laughing just a little. He squeezed her hand, and just like that she stopped laughing and started shaking, a couple of tears escaping her eyes.
“Oh, Jesus. Sitwell, what’s our ETA? I think we’ve got some shock going on back here.”
“With this fucking traffic? Sixteen minutes.”
“Shit. Kelly? Kelly, babe, I need you to listen to me. Coulson’s coming, okay? He sent us to get you out, and he commandeered a jet and he’s on his way.”
“Phil . . . Phil doesn’t even call me babe,” she protested through teeth clenched against chattering.
“No, Phil’s not really a babe kind of guy,” Clint agreed easily, his tone soothing. “I imagine sweetheart’s more in line with his tastes.”
“H-honey,” she corrected. “And only when he really wants my attention.”
Clint snorted. “Figures. The only times he ever called me Clint was when he was trying to stop me from dying. Or defecting.”
“Nope. But remind me someday to tell you how I met Nat, okay?”
“Fuck yeah, it’s classified. If you’re really good though, I’ll tell you anyway.”
She shook her head. “Phil . . . wouldn’t like that. No giving away secrets for me.”
Clint barked a sharp laugh, then nodded. “Fine. The circus. I’ll tell you all about the fucking circus.”
“An’ the arrows.”
“And the—” The car took a hard turn, and Clint tumbled into her. “Sitwell, what the fuck?”
“Got a shadow. Three lengths back. Green Durango.”
Clint popped his head up to look, and suddenly the back window exploded. He ducked down again, gun already in one hand, Kelly’s arm in the other. “Down,” he ordered. “On the floor.”
She went, trying to make herself as small as possible against the seats, distantly aware that it should be hurting her leg more than it was to be so curled up.
“Get us off the streets,” Clint ordered. “Away from the civilians.”
“I’m trying,” Jasper bitched from the front, and the SUV swerved wildly into a right-hand turn. Kelly braced herself with both hands and looked up as the air current changed.
Clint was maneuvering himself out the side window, his arms straining as he held onto the roof to get into position. Soon only his legs and boots were visible, and the crack of gunfire doubled as he shot back.
“Don’t hit the people,” she said, but there was no way he’d heard. She closed her eyes and hoped all the bystanders would be okay. Fuck, she hoped she would be okay. Clint and Jasper too.
Jasper made another turn, and Clint’s bow slid off the seat and fell onto the wound on her leg, pointy end first. She gave a hoarse sort of yelp, and passed out.
Phil refused to tell her what it had all been about. He said it was an old grudge, some bad blood, but that the details belonged in the past and needed to stay there. That the responsible parties had been taken care of, and that it wasn’t going to happen again. It led to their biggest fight to date.
Eventually Kelly let it drop, recognizing that she wasn’t going to get anywhere. She started seeing the psychologist the doctor had recommended. Given that she was pretty sure he’d been an “agency” doctor in an “agency” facility, she wasn’t putting much store in the “agency” psychiatrist helping her with the resentment she felt at not being told why she’d had to go through what she’d gone through.
Phil was distant, too. He was there to help her with physical therapy, and he drove her anywhere she needed to go. He helped around the apartment and brought her food so she wouldn’t have to cook. But she got the distinct impression he was doing it out of guilt, and that was not the driving emotion she wanted him to have.
She wasn’t blameless either, she knew. She was temperamental sometimes, snapping at him when she felt tired or helpless, and fighting a simmering rage whenever his job called him away, even if only for the day. Sue came by a lot too, and she seemed to sense that there was more to the story than she’d been given, and somehow she came to the conclusion that Phil was guilty in some way. Kelly probably didn’t do enough to disabuse her of that notion, which only cranked the tension up all around.
Clint visited often, sometimes with Natasha in tow, but more frequently not. He’d managed to get himself grazed by a bullet during her rescue, but other than that and some scratches on his arms and face from all the window-breaking, he was fine. He brought her food when Phil couldn’t, and sometimes took her to her appointments, then stayed to fill in the holes in his cheesy movie education.
“You need to forgive him,” he said suddenly one afternoon. He’d just put in a DVD, Sleepless in Seattle, and was standing in front of the TV, his hands on his hips. “He’s carrying a lot of guilt, and I know there’s stuff there he didn’t handle right, but you’re not being fair, Kelly.”
“Fair?” she repeated incredulously, looking up at him from the couch. “You want to talk to me about fair? I was held hostage, Clint, and I’m apparently not even allowed to know why. Something to do with a past case, right? Or assignment, or whatever the hell you call them. I’m not cleared to know the details of my own kidnapping. How messed up is that?”
“It sucks,” he agreed. “I know it does, but—”
“But nothing,” she interrupted. “You and Phil, you’re trained for this. I’m not. I haven’t had combat training, or psychological training, and I know I’m a little fucked up from this, okay? I know that. Believe it or not, I am trying. I know it wasn’t his fault. And I know he cut short whatever that project was he was working on, and I know it went to hell a few days later because he wasn’t there.”
“That’s not even . . . Wow, okay. Kell, what went wrong on that project is so not even worth worrying about. Yeah, things got a little messed up, but it looks like it’s all going to work out anyway. And even if it had gone down the drain? I know Coulson wouldn’t for one second regret giving it up to make sure you were safe.”
She looked away, feeling some of the resentment and guilt drain away. It had felt as though he’d been upset about not being there for whatever the mistake was. And Natasha had said something about him missing a chance to meet someone? “I heard . . . In the place you were all pretending was a real hospital, I overheard him and Natasha talking. He was supposed to meet someone? Or something. I don’t know. And he didn’t get to. It seemed kind of like a big deal.”
“Oh my god,” Clint said on a laugh. He moved to the couch and scrubbed at his face. “I can’t tell you who that was, or why it would have made his fucking dreams come true, okay? No, don’t,” he said forcefully when she flinched away. “I hope someday you’ll find out, I really do. But Coulson’s gonna have another shot at it, Kelly. The guy he was supposed to meet? He’s not going anywhere. And even if Coulson never sees him again, it’s not like he’s gonna fucking hold it against you. Jesus, you should have seen him when he got here. All he wanted to know was that you were safe, that you were being treated. He fucking went to bat for you, Kell. Tried to get the big boss to read you in on the situation. He tried to get the okay to tell you things. He was denied. Repeatedly. And when Fury denies Coulson something he really wants, you know there’s a damn good reason for it. Fury’s an asshole and a bastard, but if he thinks it’s best for you not to know something, then it’s probably for the best.”
“I don’t like secrets,” she said quietly. “And I don’t like feeling helpless. Not knowing why this happened to me? Makes me feel helpless. How can I stop it from happening again if I don’t know why it happened in the first place?”
“You were fine with the secrets before this happened,” he pointed out gently. “I think this just made them real, right? Took them out of the abstract and smacked you upside the head with them.”
“Or stabbed me in the leg with them,” she corrected dryly.
“Or that. As for feeling helpless, well, we can all help. I know you and Natasha have only been fucking around, you haven’t really done any real training. She’ll step it up when you’re healed, if you want her to. And Phil and I can take you to the range, if you want to learn to shoot. Guns,” he said with a smirk as she opened her mouth, “not a bow and arrow. Smart ass.”
Kelly had to think about that. She wanted to feel safe, she really did. But she’d never wanted to live in a world where guns and self-defense training were necessities. “I don’t know,” she said, hedging. “Let me think about it?”
“Of course. You need to be healed up first anyway. Just, whatever you decide? Cut Coulson a little slack, yeah? He’s punishing himself enough, wondering if you’d be better off without him.”
“God,” she said, her voice vehement. “Is that what he’s doing?”
“I know, what a moron, right?” Clint’s voice was tight, though, and he was looking at her expectantly.
“Clint,” she forced herself to say. “I’m not going anywhere. I love that moron, after all.”
She watched as Clint’s shoulders visibly relaxed and he offered her a crooked grin. “Tell him that, okay? Not me.”
“Okay,” she agreed, and firmly did not dwell on the tiny portion of her brain that questioned what might happen if maybe Phil was right.
Time passed and things settled down. The psychiatrist Kelly was seeing had actually been extremely helpful in moving her past the secrecy side of things. She supposed if the man was used to working with agents as well as families and friends of agents, he’d have a lot of experience in helping them understand that some things were better left unsaid.
She’d gone to the shooting range with Phil a few times, and with Clint once, but the shooting itself held no appeal for her. She did it, because she did like getting control of her life back, and she was getting better at hitting the part of the target she was aiming for, but she wasn’t sure it was something she’d keep up with once she more fully got over the experience of being attacked.
Sparring with Natasha, on the other hand, was great fun. She knew perfectly well the Russian was holding back, but that was all right. Maybe one day she’d be able to take her down in a fair fight. Clint, however, was even better to spar with. Not because he taught her more, but because he took joy in it, laughing whenever one of them landed on the training mat and then grinning as they faced off to do it again. Natasha was full of quiet competence and sparse praise, while Clint was all enthusiasm and cocky mischief. Even Phil, watching from the sidelines in the gym, would laugh at their antics from time to time, waving away Clint’s odd comments about paperclips and bags of flour.
Phil went out of town only a few times in the months after the attack. He was always back in under a week, and never with any new scars of any kind. He made sure to call or text when he could, and when he couldn’t, he’d get word to her through Clint somehow. Things were better, and if she still sometimes woke up in the middle of the night worried about what might happen next, well, things always looked better in the light of day.
She and Phil were eating dinner when the call came. Kelly rolled her eyes at the familiar ring of Phil’s work phone, and Phil smiled at her in apology before answering it. But his shoulders went tight ten seconds into the conversation, and he stood up to move to his bedroom. The only part of the conversation she got to hear was, “How long have they had them?”
When he came back out, he had his bag with him, and Kelly frowned as she took their plates to the sink. She kept her back turned to the now-familiar sounds of a weapons check, and tried to calm the jackrabbit pace of her heart.
“Kelly,” he said softly, and she turned to see him standing just inside the kitchen. “I have to go.”
“Five days, maybe. Hopefully less.”
She looked him over, assessing his stance, his expression, the set of his shoulders. His holster was a little crooked, a testament to how unusual this call to action was. “It’s not administrative this time, is it?”
“No. There was a team sent to . . . retrieve something. They’ve been captured. I have to, well. Retrieve the retrieval squad.”
“Can’t they send somebody else?” she asked, hating the tone in her voice, but unable to temper it.
“There’s no one better for the job, unfortunately. I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to make sure you’re okay with this. My pick-up will be here in just a few minutes.”
“And if I’m not okay?”
He took a deep breath. “I’ll have to go anyway. There’s something I can’t tell you,” he said and she snorted. He kept his eyes on hers and ignored it. “But if you knew this thing, this piece of intel, you’d want me to go too.”
“You’re so sure of that?” Her tone slid into snide, and again she wished she knew how to do this better. But she didn’t; she was scared, and angry, and she didn’t understand why it had to be Phil. Why it always had to be Phil.
“I am,” he assured her, and his calm, competent voice made her want to stab something.
“So you’re making the decision for me. I can’t have all the facts, so you’re going to act in my best interest, and fuck all what I actually want, right?”
“Kelly,” he said, taking two measured steps closer. Something flashed across his face, his expression cracking, there and gone in less than a second. His eyes, though. His eyes were full of things she didn’t want to see. Fear, sadness. Pain. Heartache.
“Tell me,” she said, her tone gentle. She just wanted to know what could make him look like that, what could possibly fill him with so many emotions all at once.
She’d wondered once, not so very long ago, what Phil’s other breaking points were. He’d said she was one of them, and she hadn’t, at the time, asked him to elaborate, knowing he wouldn’t have been likely to. But she’d caught the phrasing, knew she wasn’t the only thing that could make Phil break. Now that she was about to learn another, she thought maybe she shouldn’t want to know. A certainty washed over her that, whatever this was, things were going to change between them. Maybe to an irrevocable extent.
Still, if she didn’t ask now, she might never know, and that could make things even worse. “Phil,” she coaxed, and just like that, his control collapsed.
“It’s Clint,” he breathed. His expression shifted once more, just for a moment, but it was enough.
“Go,” she said, amazed at how calm she sounded. “Phil, you go get him and you bring him home.”
His face cleared and he nodded. He took the last step to reach her and she met him for a kiss, cupping his jaw lightly. He didn’t linger, but stepped back after just a moment. He picked up his bag as a knock sounded at the door. “I love you.”
She smiled at him, sad but fond. “I know you do. I love you too.”
Phil opened the door to Natasha, exchanged a few quiet words with her, and then Agent Coulson slipped away.
“How is he?”
“He’s fine,” Phil said with a smile as he ushered her inside. “A few bruises and a cracked rib, but nothing that won’t heal in just a few weeks.”
It had only taken Phil three and a half days to get Clint back. Kelly had had a lot of thoughts in those eighty-odd hours. There had been many cups of coffee, and far too much ice cream. It wasn’t all Clint. In fact, hardly any of it was. Most of it was worry and loneliness and a lot of anger directed towards the job that Phil loved. Phil had gone on a mission—not an assignment or a case, but a full-on fucking mission—and Kelly knew he’d do it again and again, until one day when he wouldn’t come home.
That thought terrified her to her very bones. Not that he wouldn’t come home, so much. More that she wouldn’t know. Each assignment he took could be the one to kill him, and she would wait at home and never know if the next phone call would be the one to break her heart. She would hate it, and she’d resent the job for putting her through it, until the resentment transferred to him. And Phil would either quit or he wouldn’t, but either way their relationship would be over. She would go slowly mad if he didn’t quit, and he would go mad if he did. He deserved better than that.
They both deserved better than that.
She let him kiss her in greeting, then moved past the couch to sit at the kitchen table, her hands clasped loosely in front of her. “Phil.”
He sat and looked at her, his eyes tight with sadness. “I knew if I left it would change something.”
“And yet you went anyway.” It was amazing how even her voice could be, how calm she was, now that they were at their end. “That’s not an accusation,” she added, just to be clear. “Just a statement of fact.”
He nodded. “I understand. And I did. I couldn’t have stayed.”
It was her turn to nod. “I do understand, Phil. This job, it’s a big part of who you are. And it’s an important thing to do. It needs to be done, and it needs to be done by the best. I do get that.”
“I just don’t think I’m cut out to be a part of that life. I like the idea of it, maybe. The sparring is fun and I have to admit it’s quite the turn on, knowing your boyfriend is a secret bad-ass.”
He laughed, just for a moment. Just long enough for her to hear the sadness in it. “But the reality is very different, isn’t it?”
“It is. I thought I could handle it, Phil. I’m so sorry. If I’d known what this would be like, I would have saved us both the heartache and turned tail ages ago. The first time I suspected it wasn’t the FBI you worked for.”
“When Barton climbed out the window,” he supplied, and she smiled ruefully.
“When Clint showed up for an in-home debrief and then climbed out the window, yes.”
“I should have told you sooner than that. We were already forming an attachment, and I should have spoken up. That’s on me.”
“I doubt it would have changed my mind,” she admitted. “I really did think I’d be able to handle it. But seeing you go after Clint, knowing what I know now about the kinds of people you face? It was easier to be ignorant, I think. Which doesn’t mean it was better, necessarily. Just . . . easier.”
“But you can’t regain ignorance once it’s been lost,” he pointed out.
“No. You can’t.”
“What will you do now?”
She shrugged. “I think I might go back home. There are rumors of a chair opening up due to retirement. I like New York well enough, but my heart belongs to the Pacific Northwest. I miss air.”
His lips quirked in amusement, but his eyes remained sad. “I chose this life,” he said slowly. “Willingly and with full understanding. I could never ask someone to choose it without allowing them the same. And unless you’re already in the life, that understanding will remain out of reach.”
“It’s a good thing you know someone who’s deep in it, then,” she teased. “Someone who maybe wouldn’t mind choosing both it and you.”
“I don’t,” he started, but she refused to let him finish.
“You do. Phil, you do know someone like that. And he knows you. Very well.”
He shook his head, eyes sliding away for just a moment before he caught himself and looked back to her. “No,” he said firmly. “Whatever you think you saw, you were mistaken.”
Kelly understood that it wasn’t any kind of denial of what Phil wanted. It was, instead, a denial of what Clint wanted. She shrugged casually, knowing it would bother him a bit. “Fine, think what you want. But what the hell do you think Clint and I bonded so well over? It definitely wasn’t archery and guns.”
“It was romantic comedies and triple chocolate ice cream.”
“Was it?” she asked, her eyebrow arched. “Or was it you?”
He shook his head again, but he looked less certain this time.
She shrugged again, then stood. “Think about it,” she advised, moving to his side and leaning down to kiss his cheek. “For both your sakes.”
He breathed out, somewhat unsteadily, and she hugged him to her, cradling his head to her body. He reached one hand up and wrapped it around her arm, holding tightly for a long moment.
Then they let each other go.
All the channels were the same. Every single camera in New York City was focused on the battle taking place in Manhattan, and every television station across America was broadcasting the images from that battle. The aliens versus superheroes battle. When did this even become reality?
Iron Man had gotten there first, according to reports. And then an odd sort of jet had landed—crashed, really—and a small band of reinforcements had arrived. The images were shaky, and the feeds cut in and out as the cameramen had to continuously duck down or run for cover. There was a man in blue, and a redheaded woman, and Kelly had to turn away suddenly, knowing who the third figure might be, and terrified of being right.
It was chaos. She could hear the explosions and the frantic reports, until the sound cut out, to be replaced by the calmer voice over of a talking head in a studio. She turned back, unwilling to trust anyone else to see it for her. Her fellow orchestra members all watched with rapt attention, but Kelly’s eyes flicked between the two televisions in the green room, waiting for the clear shots she needed to confirm what she already knew.
The redhead, there, fighting alongside the man in blue (and Kelly recognized that uniform, okay, it hadn’t changed that much, but that was impossible. It was impossible and wrong, and not worth thinking about) and everything about her was familiar, from the shape of her hips to the cut of her hair, to the way she performed a roundhouse kick with ease and grace. Kelly knew those eyes, that power, and it made her sick to her stomach.
On the other TV, there was video of a bus, people literally climbing out its windows. A man was helping them from the outside, hauling people out, kids and adults alike, his arms flexing as he held their weight, just a few seconds for each person. Those arms were achingly familiar. Kelly didn’t need the confirmation of the quiver strapped to the man’s back to know that Clint Barton was once again right in the thick of things.
So where was Phil? There was no way Clint and Natasha (and Captain freaking America—but no, not thinking about that) were fighting if Phil wasn’t there to back them up. There was simply no way in hell he’d ever let them enter something like that alone.
Her eyes stayed glued to the coverage. It only got spottier as the battle went on, and at one point she lost track of Clint too. She thought she might vomit, but there was a sudden report of arrows flying about, and she breathed through it. And at the end Stark flew through with some kind of missile, and all she could think was, Save them, oh God, Tony Stark, please save them all.
Apparently, he did.
Everyone in the room was crying, so Kelly didn’t think she stood out too much as she sank to the floor in relief.
Or was it despair? Because in all the coverage of all the action, she hadn’t once seen a pleasant looking man in a suit pick up a gun and aim it with startling accuracy.
Everyone went home after that. There was no sense trying to rehearse today, and no one wanted to be anywhere other than home after an event like that. Kelly carefully drove to her apartment, not allowing herself to think about anything but the roads and the traffic, the pedestrians celebrating in the streets. Once she got inside, however, she turned on her television and her laptop, trying to find broadcasts of the aftermath. Her TV was less than helpful, the stations all choosing to play the images of the battle itself over and over. But eventually she found a website with a live feed of the streets of Manhattan.
There were people in suits, so many suits, running around, cleaning up alien debris and aiding survivors. But none of them were in Dolce, or even Boss. There was no head of soft brown hair with a receding hairline, no calm blue eyes in the midst of the chaos. Kelly watched and watched, hoping against hope, telling herself that it might not mean anything, that these people with their weirdly militant eagle logo on their cars and vans might not belong to the same organization as Phil. That maybe he was one of the ones in a hazmat suit. Maybe he was conducting operations from a base. Maybe maybe maybe.
And then. Oh God, and then. A shot of Jasper Sitwell, looking tired and strained but very much in command, directing other agents, pointing them into action and barking when they didn’t move fast enough. That was Phil’s job. That was Phil’s coworker in Phil’s secret agency doing Phil’s job.
Kelly’s hands shook as she snapped the laptop closed. And less than a minute later she was opening it again, just in case. Just in case.
For two days she saw nothing of Phil on any of the feeds. She wondered if she’d get a call. Did secret agencies bother to call ex-girlfriends of dead agents? Would Clint call her? Should she call Clint? Could she call Clint? She’d tried Phil’s number constantly, but the cell towers around New York City were either damaged or overloaded. The few times she’d gotten through, the call had gone straight to voicemail.
She cursed at stupid AT&T, and at her own stupidity for buying an iPhone. Phil had always grudgingly said that StarkPhones were the best. She’d wondered at his tone in the past, and now she wondered if he’d known the man.
When her phone rang that evening, and her screen proclaimed it to be a blocked number, her hands started shaking again. It could very well have been a harmless call, a solicitor, an attempt to collect on her past due credit card. But she couldn’t take the chance that it wasn’t harmless, that it wasn’t an anonymous drone behind a phone bank. She answered it before the second ring had finished, and had barely breathed into it when she heard, “Kelly?”
“Clint.” Not the voice she’d so been hoping to hear, no, but the one she’d been starting to expect. “Is he okay?”
There was silence for a moment, punctuated only by the deep, ragged breaths she could hear clearly. Somehow she’d thought the connection would be terrible, but it wasn’t. It was clear as a bell. “No, babe,” Clint finally strangled out. “No, I’m sorry, Kell. Coulson . . . Phil’s dead.”
Kelly carefully scooted off the edge of the couch and onto the floor. It was more solid there. “During the battle?” she heard herself ask.
“Just before. He . . . He had a chance to stop it before it even began. So he tried, right? Of course he tried. Fucking Coulson. It didn’t . . . It didn’t work, Kell.”
She nodded dully. Of course it hadn’t worked. Otherwise there would have been no battle and no reason for anyone from New York to even contact her. This phone call would not be happening at all if it had worked. “I . . . Are you okay?”
He laughed, sharp and bitter. “I’m not injured.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
They sat there, on the phone together, breathing at each other and not saying anything. She had no idea how long it went on, but she could hear another man’s voice on Clint’s end. It was commanding, authoritative, and Clint lashed out. “Would you give me a fucking minute?”
“Look, Kelly, I have to go. You might not be able to reach me for a while, okay? There’s some stuff . . .”
“Clint, are you in trouble?”
Again he laughed, this time with a note of hysteria breaking through the acerbity. “So fucking much, babe. I’ll be out of range for a while, okay? You can leave messages on my phone if you need to talk, and I’ll get them eventually. Nat has your email and your phone number, and she’s under orders to let you know how to call her if you need her.”
“She’s okay then? Natasha?”
“She’s fine. Better than the rest of us.”
“Holy shit, Clint,” she breathed, the reality of it sinking in. “You’re a fucking superhero.”
“Probably not for long,” he corrected her. The other voice interrupted, with a sharp and brittle, “Barton,” and Clint made a noise in his throat. “Okay, those are my marching orders. I’m really sorry, Kelly. I wish he . . . Well. I wish.”
“Clint, wait!” Her heart hammered in her chest, the realization that Clint was one of what people were calling The Avengers, that he maybe helped Phil achieve one last dream, made her question suddenly very important.
“Did he get to meet him?” she asked, breathless. “Clint, did Phil meet Captain America?”
“Yeah. Yes. Kelly, yes. He did. And fanboy-ed all over him, apparently.”
She laughed at that, laughed loud and hard, until she was sobbing, crying for the first time since leaving New York, crying until she couldn’t breathe.
Clint texted her from time to time. He liked to send pictures from around the tower, sometimes, mostly of Natasha, a few of himself. A lot of Captain Rogers. He’d caption those, little notes asking what Coulson would think of this dorky habit or that example of high moral standing come to life. Sometimes he’d call, and Kelly liked that the best, liked hearing his voice and knowing when he was smiling and when he wasn’t.
He’d sent her something once too, on Phil’s birthday the year after he’d died. The framed poster from over Phil’s bed, which she hadn’t been expecting. She’d held it together well enough, until she’d noticed the addition in the corner, black ink covering the dates for the USO tour. A single, simple sentence above an old-fashioned, proper signature.
In honor of a good man.
Steven Rogers, Captain US Army
She’d hung the damned thing up in her living room, right next to the window she always hoped would someday open to a smiling friend. It never did.
She did see him, once.
Kelly had been just as surprised as everyone else when the Oregon Symphony had acquired a new patron a few months after the Battle of New York. She had been shocked, along with all her colleagues, to learn that the donation had been made anonymously and that it was enough to fund the symphony and its programs for the next ten years. She was the only one, however, who had been shocked at the name of the foundation set up to handle the trust.
The Phillip J. Coulson Memorial Trust.
So it stood to reason that she had been the only one patently unsurprised to learn that their benefactor was the ever mercurial Tony Stark. He visited once, bringing with him the beautiful Miss Potts, and two very attractive former spies and current Avengers. Kelly had shaken his hand, thanked him, then ignored almost everything he said, and hugged both Clint and Natasha.
Clint, at least, had really hugged her back.
But lately the phone calls and texts were tapering off. It made her sad, a little, to think that she and Clint were losing their bond. It made sense though. It had been two and a half years, and they’d both moved on. Clint a little less, maybe, but he had dated a few times. It was harder for him, she knew, still being in the city and surrounded by their mutual friends on a daily basis.
She still kept tabs on him though, and whenever an Avengers event happened, she did her best to keep calm and watch the footage. It scared the crap out of her, especially every time he jumped off a building, but he always either used a grappling hook arrow or had one of his teammates catch him. She had her favorite website too, for post-event live streaming, which she could always count on for after images of her favorite archer, just to see that he really was safe.
The latest event had taken place on their home turf, Brooklyn bearing the brunt. She hoped Captain Rogers was handling that all right, and she watched him on the screen of her laptop as he leaned into the open doors of one of the SHIELD mobile command units. He laughed, then backed away, followed by one of the ubiquitous suits.
Kelly’s breath caught in her chest.
She tracked the man until he was off camera, then scrubbed back on the stream and watched him walk by again. That was Phil. That was . . . That was Phil! What the fuck was going on?
Catching the video up to real time, she could see Clint hanging out against an ambulance, just the left side of his body out of frame. She scrambled for her phone, then pulled up the emergency number he’d given to her years ago, after she’d woken up in the not-a-real-hospital that she now knew had been SHIELD Medical.
It was kind of funny to see Clint jump on screen, then desperately try to pull his phone out from wherever he stored it in that tight armor he called a uniform. Or it would have been, if she’d been feeling more charitable.
“Clint,” she said, her voice pitched low and dangerous. “You want to explain to me why I just watched Phil fucking Coulson walk across the video frame on my laptop?”
Clint looked up, shocked, his eyes zeroing in almost immediately on the correct camera. “Shit. I told him to give you a heads up.”
“Kell, I swear I didn’t know either until a few months ago.”
“You promised me, Clint! Years ago, you swore you’d tell me the truth!”
“I told you I’d tell you what I could,” he argued. “This isn’t declassified yet.”
“The fuck it’s not! He’s alive, Clint, and walking around on a live video feed!”
“I know. Kelly, I know, okay? Believe me, a few months ago, I was right where you are now.”
“What the hell is going on?” Just as she spoke, there was fucking Phillip J. Coulson again, approaching Clint, a look of concern on his face. And oh, she knew that look well.
Clint saw him too, and held up one hand to stop him. Then he thought better of it, and beckoned Phil forward, grabbing his hand and pulling him out of the camera’s range when he got close enough. Kelly’s mouth twisted. Good for them. Honestly. It was what she’d hoped for when she’d left three years ago. It just would have been nice to have been told the person she still grieved for on certain days and occasions had not, in fact, been dead all along.
She could hear the two of them talking, and even the muffled sound of Phil’s voice hit her like a gut-shot. She found herself trying to tilt her laptop screen, as if she could get them back in frame that way. “Clint,” she said through gritted teeth, hoping he’d hear her and come back.
“Sorry. Fuck, Kell, I’m so sorry. This isn’t how I wanted you to find out.”
“So there was a plan for me to find out?” she asked, her voice bitter and disbelieving.
“Yes. God, yes. Kelly, there’s a whole fucking, like, eight-page plan on how to reintroduce Phil to the world.”
“So it’s ‘Phil’ now, huh?” she couldn’t stop herself from saying. “No more ‘Coulson?’”
Clint moved, she could see him at the edge of her screen. He looked right at the camera and gave her a sheepish shrug. “Yeah. Is that okay?”
She laughed, and it sounded a lot brighter and happier than she would have thought herself capable of at the moment. “Yes, Clint. Yes, it’s very, very okay. I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks.” He grinned, bright and happy, then looked off to the side. “Oh, Phil says he cut the feed, so he wants the phone now.”
“No, it’s still streaming. I can see you.”
“Yeah, he locked on to your IP address, I guess? You’re the only one getting it.”
“How?” she asked, incredulous.
“There’s a super hacker on his new team. He’s learned a few things. Hang on, here he is.”
On screen, Phil stepped into frame and took the phone from Clint. “Hi, Kelly,” he said, a familiar tilt to his lips.
“Oh,” she breathed, because suddenly all she wanted to do was cry. “Phil.”
“I know. I’m sorry. There were reasons. Good ones, even. I can’t go into it over the phone, but we could come see you?”
“I . . . Yes. I need to yell at you in person.” It lacked heat, she knew, coming out all watery.
Phil nodded though, as if he knew she was perfectly serious. Which she was. Or she would be, as soon as she stopped crying. “And I’d like to meet your fiancé. Clint tells me he’s quite a guy.”
“Clint’s never even met him,” she said, laughing through her tears.
“He’s done his research,” Phil said wryly. “I don’t think Jason would still be alive if Clint had decided he didn’t like him.”
“That’s not funny,” she protested, but again, it lacked heat.
“No. Sorry.” He checked his own phone, eyes on the screen while he spoke to her. “There’s nothing of note on Wednesday. We could come then, if you’re free?”
She rushed to think, but no. She could take a personal day easily, and Jason never had plans on weekday evenings. “Wednesday is fine. Jason works, but he can join us for dinner.”
“I’m putting it in my calender now, and I’ll arrange the flight as soon as we’re done here.” He finished tapping at his phone with one hand and put it away. “It will be good to see you, Kelly.”
“You too. God, Phil, if you only knew.”
“I have some idea,” he said, and she knew he couldn’t see her shake her head, but the sympathetic smile he sent her seemed to suggest otherwise.
“Put Clint back on?”
“Sure.” He handed the phone back to its owner, but didn’t go far. Clint didn’t let him, grabbing onto his suit jacket with his free hand.
“Yeah, hi. Do me a favor? Take care of him for me. I don’t want to do this all over again.”
Clint laughed, warm and rich, and happier than he’d been in years. “You and me both, babe.”
She laughed too as Phil’s eyebrows went up. “I think Phil takes exception to the nickname.”
Clint looked over to where he still had his boyfriend by a fistful of fabric. He let go then, smoothing the wrinkles with one broad, flat hand. “Don’t be jealous, Phil. She was babe first. Maybe if you hadn’t up and died on me, you’d have a nickname of your very own by now.”
Phil said something the phone didn’t pick up, but Kelly didn’t need to hear it to know what Phil thought of that. His expression said it all.
Clint grinned and spoke into the phone again, though his eyes never left Phil’s. “Okay, Kelly, time to go. We’ll see you on Wednesday.”
“See you, Clint. Watch his back.”
The feed lasted just long enough to see Clint catch Phil’s mouth with his own, and then Phil pressed a button on his phone, and Kelly’s screen went dark. She closed her laptop reluctantly, and wondered just how the hell she was going to explain all this to Jason.